Every definition of masculinity into which our Lord Jesus Christ does not fit belongs in the rubbish heap. Indeed, there could be no greater example of a man than He. Contrary to modern portrayals, Jesus was neither a sensitive metrosexual nor a macho-macho man. The tenderness that He displayed toward those whom He loved (including His enemies) was paternal and sacrificial, focused not on self-gratification or expression but on the real needs of those He came to save. The Son of Man did not strut about flexing His muscles or cursing at His enemies, because He possessed the quiet confidence of One absolutely certain of His mission and did not need the approval of others in order to maintain that certainty. Nor did He need to “be His own boss” in order to be a man (Isaiah called Him “God’s slave”), insisting, instead, that He came not to do His own will but the “will of Him Who sent Me”—His Father. He resisted the temptation of Satan to perform a spectacular feat of strength by casting Himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, choosing, rather, the way of the Cross. This Man wept—for Jerusalem, for the family of Lazarus—not out of hypersensitivity or fear but because of His great love for a people languishing under the weight of their own sin. Even in the hour of His torment in Gethsemane, He prayed for those entrusted to His care while battling the Old Serpent, whose head He crushed in the greatest battle ever fought by a man. And He emerged from the grave a King, still bearing the wounds of battle. There will be no democracy on Judgment Day when “the Man comes around,” because only one vote will count: that of the God Who humbled Himself in order to save the ones He loves.
This is not the language of the American Christian man, who strolls, rosy-cheeked and all aflutter, “in the garden alone,”
while the dew is still on the roses.
And the voice I hear falling on my ear—
the Son of God—discloses.
And He walks with me and He talks with me.
And He tells me I am His own.
And the joy we share as we tarry there—
none other has ever known.
These familiar strains from the popular hymn “In the Garden” represent the modern American imagination of the essence of Christianity: a romantic fantasy in which a chivalric Jesus rescues me from my own loneliness and despair and fills all of my emotional needs. This effeminate picture of the Christian life, from the dramatic conversion experience to the long walks in the garden alone with “Jesus,” has produced generations of effeminate Christian men who either allow themselves to be consumed by their imaginary “walks with Jesus” or else drift away from church altogether, knowing that their best efforts at spiritual courtship will fall well short of those of the women who now, more than ever, fill the pews of America’s churches.
When the West was Christian, Church and society encouraged men to follow the example of the Son of Man: Endowed with headship yet obedient to higher authorities, a man must use his physical abilities and natural strength and demeanor to provide for and protect his family, his people, laying down his life if necessary. This requires the cultivation of courage, discipline, and honor in boys, which used to be the goal of the education that our churches used to provide.
Today, American culture presents boys with icons of “masculinity,” such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, who glory in sodomizing women while pumping iron in a gym. Ideally, physical strength is to be put into the service of self-gratification, not of protecting and providing for “weaker vessels.” The macho American man is a “selfish hedonist,” who lives fast, plays hard, and beds women at will. Loving a wife, rearing children, and serving others are the least of his concerns.
The flip-side of this concept of manhood is the homosexual, another sodomizer, whose very label means self-gratification. Adam and Steve cannot properly assume the mantle of responsibility that God calls marriage, because homosexual sex, devoid of the divinely instituted roles of man and wife—chief among them, the possibility of and openness to procreation—is nothing more than mutual self-gratification. Saint Paul calls it “that which is unseemly,” “vile affections,” “dishonouring the body,” and “against nature.” The homosexual’s “orientation” is open rebellion against God and His created order. Furthermore, a society that celebrates this (or any other) sort of hedonistic masculinity is warring against the very essence of Christianity.
Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father” not because He lived in a male-dominated society but because His saving mission involved granting us a share in His Divine Sonship through the “adoption of sons.” Therefore, the very essence of Christianity is masculine, an expression of patriarchal authority and the place and inheritance enjoyed by the Firstborn Son. Such authority has long been maligned by the liberal mainline churches in America, which are happy to ordain women and, now, open homosexuals. Yet it is not merely the Scripture-denying mainlines who have been infected by this disease. The image of the effeminate clergyman is nearly universal in America—not just among liberals but among self-identified conservatives. The myriad queer priests on the Catholic side have as their counterpart the femmy Protestant pastor who must rely on silly stories and Dr. Phil psychobabble to carry his sermons. Vasectomized fathers of 1.5 children make their vestments look like dresses as they tug at the heart-strings of men and women. Evangelical megachurch pastors, with their khakis and polo shirts, take up the role of vicar of Jesus-the-Boyfriend, as their sermons or chats insist on fanning the flames of passion for Christ instead of proclaiming the Passion of Christ. One popular conservative pastor even champions something he calls “Christian hedonism,” in a book entitled, appropriately, Desiring God.
Gone are the liturgies that place the crucified Christ and His Body and Blood at the center, and gone are hymns that call God “a bulwark never failing.” In their place are the ubiquitous and repetitive choruses that distort the message of historic Christianity and replace it with a celebration of feminine emotions: “The simplest of all love songs / I want to bring to you / So I let my words be few / Jesus I am so in love with you.”
The modern “praise and worship” experience resembles a soft-rock concert (a genre made for women), where the “worship leader” and his swooning sidekicks, the praise band, take center stage. Each stands gazing into the middle distance (where the Spirit of God seems to be hovering above the congregation), his (or, more often, her) heels tapping while one hand grips the wireless microphone and the other is lifted toward the ceiling, as if serving as a conduit of sacramental grace.
This campy environment is supplemented by something called “small groups,” a method of spiritual cognitive dissonance perfected by Bill Hybels at suburban Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church. Unlike the authoritarian “I-talk-and-you-listen” environment in which Christians traditionally learned the Scriptures and teachings of the Church, small groups are a “safe” environment in which believers can take turns interpreting the Bible and sharing all of their deepest traumas and experiences while a leader guides the conversation. The emphasis here is on vulnerability and openness, which, when coupled with group “accountability,” have always been the hallmarks of behavior-modification therapy.
What happens when the self-identified “conservative” churches encourage men to behave as women, swooning “in the garden” and “knowing” Jesus in an imaginary romance, or in “safe” small groups, or in effeminate “praise and worship” experiences? What happens to families when a church professes belief in the authority of the Bible and in the undeniable fact that marriage is between one man and one woman, then teaches husbands and fathers that the essence of the Faith is found within, in the desires of their own hearts?
The answer is all around us. Christian churches in America have long lost their authority to speak prophetically both to the culture and to their own children. Christian fathers no longer see themselves as heads of households. And, as concerned women rise up and try to fill the void that these men leave, they often end up forsaking their own natural roles as childbearers, childrearers, and “keepers at home,” as Saint Paul called them. In conservative churches, in which homosexuality is still called sin, Christian men forsake the natural use of their wives not for other men but for contracepted sex, which Martin Luther called “sodomy.” They, too, become “God haters.”
Today’s Christian man struggles to be a real father to his children. Once, as I stood out in front of a church before the service, talking with another father, one of the young members of the church youth group walked by, her skirt too small to measure. “Where in the world is her father!” I remarked, “and why does he let her own a skirt like that, let alone wear it to church?”
“Uh, I dunno,” the other man replied. “You know, Britney is 14 now. If Pastor told her she couldn’t wear that, she’d probably leave and never come back. Besides, what’s her dad supposed to do, lock her in a closet?”
Perplexed, I explained the Britney situation to the pastor: “Isn’t it about time that we had some kind of general policy about proper attire in the service? Nothing too specific, but just a gentle admonition to young ladies that they refrain from wearing shorts, miniskirts, and the like to church?”
Chuckling (after realizing I was serious), the pastor said, “I’m not sure of how well that would go over. Besides, I’m not certain that that would be the best thing for Britney or anyone else. They’ve got to want to be modest, because God looks at our hearts. He’s not caught up in externals.”
This all-too-common response to spiritual problems in churches reinforces a particularly insidious moral disorder: Since God looks on the heart, we need not have any rules. No sex distinctions, no modesty, no “Yes, Sir,” and “Yes, Ma’am,” no “You may not behave that way while you’re at our house”—in short, no protection against the “better angels of our nature” which, being sinful and lacking any moral formation, are really little demons. And neither the state nor society nor, in most cases, the Church will support a father who lays down the law, puts his foot down, acts like a man. The same goes for pastors, who so often must walk the line when it comes to the preaching of God’s law, lest they offend the sensibilities of a morally unformed congregation. Preach all you want about incivility, greed, and unkindness, but mention divorce, contraception, immodesty, or anything else that hits too close to home, and you might just find yourself transferred or your salary cut in half.
In her insightful work The Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas traces the problem of the effeminacy of the American Christian man to the disestablishment of churches. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Congregationalist and Episcopalian churches that were established in the states along the East Coast were disestablished, and all of the civil benefits that those churches had enjoyed—the power to levy taxes to support the pastor and the church facilities, the social status for pastors that this system required and protected, the necessity of church membership for those who wished to enjoy certain social benefits—were stripped away. She is quick to point out that disestablishment had its own intellectual antecedents—in particular, the democratizing Yankee spirit known today as the American Way, the culture that ultimately produced television advertising and “Rock the Vote!” Outside of clerical circles, the leading lights of this age were averse to the idea of any sort of enforced religion. Thomas Jefferson, for example, supported the disestablishment of the Episcopal Church in Virginia.
Before disestablishment, masculine Christianity was already being gutted by the so-called Great Awakening of the 18th century. In his defense of these controversial “revivals” (for example, his treatise on the Religious Affections), Jonathan Edwards insisted that “Gracious affections . . . arise from the mind’s being enlightened, richly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things.” Edwards, a speculative thinker, also redefined sin as “selfishness” and holiness as “disinterested benevolence.” When God causes a sinner to be born again (apart from Baptism), He realigns the mind, will, and affections: The mind is then free to exercise pure reason, ascertaining the truth of Scripture; the will is free to pursue God and not the self; and the heart is filled with love for divine light. The “religious affections,” then, become evidence that God is at work. “If we be not in good earnest in religion, and our wills and inclinations be not strongly exercised, we are nothing.”
This Edwardsean perspective came to be the guiding force of New England’s “New Divinity School,” which influenced large segments of churches in America, particularly in the North. Samuel Hopkins, Edwards’ intellectual successor, placed increasing emphasis on “heart religion” and even went as far as to say that ours is the “best of all possible worlds,” because God is required to work for the greater good for the majority of His creatures. For Hopkins, the Cross of Christ was not an objective, vicarious substitution but a public declaration of divine justice designed to stimulate sinners to choose to follow God (a teaching Edwards would have abhorred). This was a reworking of the Gospel in the spirit of the Enlightenment, a new, baptized form of individualism centered on the emotions, which fit nicely with the democratizing effort to disestablish the churches. Since the masculine idea of “forced religion” became anathema, Yankee pastors increasingly turned into salesmen, and women, not heads of households, began to play dominant roles in churches, trading authority for “influence.”
By the early 19th century, another Edwardean thinker, Nathaniel Taylor, a close friend of Lyman Beecher (father of Harriet Beecher Stowe), was denying the historic Christian understanding of Original Sin (he defined sin as the acquired habit of selfishness) and proclaiming the effeminate “moral influence” theory of the Atonement: that Christ’s Passion was a placard of just how much God cares—an invitation for a heartfelt response of faith. This led to the Second Great Awakening (1830’s), in which Charles Finney applied Taylor’s teachings by creating a travelling-circus atmosphere designed to garner conversions. After all, if man is capable of being wooed to “accept Christ,” why not pull out all of the stops in order to accomplish that? This thinking led to the institutionalization of Finney’s “anxious bench,” now known as the “altar call.” Audience members whose emotions have been stirred could come down to the “altar” and place themselves on it, making a decision to follow Jesus. This feminized version of “church” was accompanied by soul-stirring songs, whose theme was not the objective work of Christ but the feelings that Christ engenders within. The North and, after Reconstruction, the South became increasingly dominated by this “decision theology,” in which men were taught that an effeminate “Christ” wants them to act just like him: wooing, begging, pleading, offering—not ruling, protecting, giving, saving.
While failing to recognize that an effeminate Gospel produces effeminate Christians, and that a democratized church polity means that those whom God has entrusted with responsibility and authority can be easily outvoted, Christian leaders have not failed to notice the problem of wussy Christian men. A century ago, evangelist (and former baseball star) Billy Sunday screamed and hollered about the sin of being a sissy man, yet he carried the feminists’ torch of Prohibitionism. The late fundamentalist preacher Jack Hyles was fond of thundering, “Listen here, faggot. You’d better think twice if you think you’re going to be admitted into my Bible college!” Yet he claimed that his entire ministry was founded on the night that he spent lying on his father’s grave, blubbering and demanding that Jesus fill him with power. The Promise Keepers, perhaps the most popular “men’s” movement, decry illegitimacy, pornography, and divorce while promoting the same sort of you-need-a-hug mentality that has helped men to find ample excuses for eschewing responsibility. Such movements are doomed to failure from the beginning because they proclaim a masculinity apart from the natural order and traditional Christian dogma. None of them challenges contraception. None of them questions the emphasis on heart religion. None of them demands that pastors preach a masculine Christ.
Traditionalist Christian denominations that do not hold “altar calls” and mass men’s meetings are not immune to this form of effete Christianity. The marketplace mentality so permeates every facet of American culture that resistance is nearly futile. The traditionalists often walk a few paces behind, insisting that the methods of the feminized churches—which garner great attendance on Sunday morning—can be used as long as the message is orthodox. Don’t we still have Sacraments at the guitar Mass? Can’t we replace the old Lutheran Hymnal with “Jesus I Am So In Love With You,” as long as we say the Nicene Creed—provided, of course, that we change “men” to “humans”? Shouldn’t we be willing to do whatever it takes to woo people to come to church? If these questions are even asked, emasculation has already occurred. Men who are lured to church through such methods will only return if they feel that their needs are being met.
Men—pastors, fathers—do not need permission to take up their mantles of authority, any more than Our Lord did. God is still the Father of the baptized, no matter what their feelings or felt-needs are. And those earthly and spiritual fathers will answer to the ultimate Man for what they have done for those under their authority, no matter what the culture said. Boys still need fathers who are willing to teach them by example how to have courage, respect, and honor, and how to treat a lady; girls still need daddies who will keep them from dressing like harlots and stop any boy in his tracks who would harm their reputations; and wives—and congregations—still need men who will stand before them and say, with Joshua, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
This article first appeared in the July 2005 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.